Last week we looked at Baptism as a source of hope. We looked at the binding promises that God makes and the blessings he gives in the New Covenant of which Baptism is the sign. Even today’s OT reading reminds us of this covenant aspect, as we read about Abraham receiving his covenant from God! Today, now, I want to shift gears a little bit and look at a consequence of Baptism – what happens when we enter into this covenant with God. The layer of the sacrament of Baptism that I want to explore today is “a preparation for suffering.” Today’s Gospel reading says it best.
Part 1 ~ Mark 8:31-38
The end of chapter 8 (verses 27-38) is the hinge of the Gospel of Mark. Verses 27-30 record the confession of Peter – Jesus asks him who he thinks he is and Peter declares him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is basically the culmination of the first half of the book, dealing with the question of identifying the Messiah. Then, in our passage, verses 31-38, the second half of the book begins, dealing with the suffering of the Messiah.
Along the same lines, this is not an isolated incident. Also in chapters 9 and 10 we see this dynamic of revelation –> confusion –> clarification. Two more times Jesus will predict his death, the disciples will misapply what he’s saying, and Jesus will have to correct them.
Despite these mistakes and misunderstandings on the part of the disciples, we read something very important in verse 32. It says Jesus spoke to them plainly about this. In many other instances the gospel books describe how Jesus spoke in parables precisely so people would not understand clearly right away, but at this point the parables are put aside; Jesus is being quite up-front about what’s going. He is going to suffer and die.
It’s not just suffering and death that he predicts, however. In verse 38 he also speaks of a coming glorification that will follow his suffering. So as we take up our own cross (v34) and follow him, we don’t do this as masochists, looking for punishment because that’s what Jesus did. Rather, we take up our cross and bear through the suffering because at the other end of it is the glory of everlasting life in Christ’s perfected kingdom! The first epistle of Peter really explores this subject in greater detail (hence the whole idea of Baptism as a source of hope in last week’s epistle reading).
Okay, so we see this movement in Jesus’ life where he has to go through suffering to reach glory. And we see his statement that we also have to carry our own cross, but how do we get to that position in the first place? Verse 38 has a clue: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words… of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed.” Mark is the only Evangelist to report that detail, highlighting the reality of Christ’s presence in the preaching of the gospel. Rejecting Christ and rejecting Christ’s messengers (the Church) are one and the same rejection. This helps us to see some identification linking ourselves to Jesus, but it still doesn’t answer the question we set out to explore: what does Baptism have to do with all this?
Part 2 ~ Baptism
Baptism does not come into this passage as a primary feature, but it is quietly sitting in the background. We see this in the way Jesus is speaking: “He who would come after me” or “follow me.” He’s talking about people giving up their old lives and living according to his teaching and example. In other words, in order to become a Christian, these are some things that need to happen. What’s really neat in this passage is that Jesus covers four main requirements that Jews upheld for people who wanted to become proselytes – that is, Gentiles converting to Judaism.
- He must come voluntarily, not by force or influence.
- He must completely renounce everything about his old lifestyle.
- He must submit to the yoke of the Mosaic Law.
- He must vow to be faithful to the Jewish religion unto death.
Jesus uses these same requirements in preparing for the New Covenant:
- We must come after Christ ourselves (v34).
- We must deny ourselves (v34) and lose our own lives (v35).
- We must not be ashamed of Christ or of his words (v38), but take up our cross (v34).
- We must be faithful to the Gospel even if it costs us our life (v36).
Picking up from last week’s exploration of Baptism as the sign of the New Covenant, now we can see how Baptism fits into the picture here in Mark 8. Since Baptism is the sign of the new covenant, these “requirements for entering the covenant” need to be met or addressed in the act of Baptism. Almost every denomination and tradition has some sort of baptismal classes for adult converts, but not as many make use of the historic liturgy that continues to be used in the Catholic churches today (including Anglicanism). Let’s turn to BCP 302 and look at the renunciations:
- I renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.
- I renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.
- I renounce all sinful desires that draw me from the love of God.
- I turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as my Savior.
- I put my whole trust in his grace and love.
- I promise to follow and obey him as my Lord.
We explicitly renew these baptismal vows annually at the Easter Vigil and whenever there is a Baptism in the church. We implicitly renew our baptismal vows every time we receive Eucharist. Holy Communion is, after all, the fellowship meal of the baptized, so at a basic level it’s an affirmation of our Baptism and a celebration of the promises made. It’s also a spiritual meal that feeds us the nourishment to bear through the sufferings that Baptism set us up for.
So yeah, what’s up with this “preparation for suffering” business? Well, it’s pretty simple. Take a look at those renunciations again. We’re rejecting the Devil, we’re rejecting sinful behavior, we’re rejecting selfish lifestyles, we’re claiming Christ as our sole sovereign… that hardly sets us up for a comfortable life in this world. This world tells us to be a self-made man, an independent woman, dependent on nobody, to live free or die, to do what you love and love what you do, to do whom you love and love whom you do. Becoming a Christian, by definition, puts us at odds with the world. At the very least we should expect opposition. At the worst, we can anticipate a martyr’s death. Different periods in history and different places in the world have been more and less severe, but suffering is universal.
It used to be a custom at Roman Catholic Confirmations that the bishop would slap the youth in the face after Confirming them. Why? Because as adults in the faith, they’re now ready to face persecution from the world. It’s a great image, if a little shocking to our 21st-century protective sensibilities. But the reality is that the world doesn’t wait until Confirmation; we’re assaulted by evil from birth. Baptism, entering into this new covenant from Christ, is the beginning of that battle.